FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III told senators yesterday that agents improperly used a type of administrative subpoena to obtain personal data about Americans until internal reforms were enacted last year.
Mueller said a forthcoming report from the Justice Department's inspector general will find that abuses recurred in the agency's use of national security letters in 2006, echoing similar problems to those identified in earlier audits.
Inspector General Glenn A. Fine reported a year ago that the FBI used such letters -- which are not subject to a court's review -- to improperly obtain telephone logs, banking records and other personal records of thousands of Americans from 2003 to 2005. An internal FBI audit also found that the bureau potentially violated laws or agency rules more than 1,000 times in such cases.
Mueller testified that a follow-up report from Fine's office, due to be released this month, will "identify issues similar to those in the report issued last March." But Mueller emphasized that the time frame in the report "predates the reforms we now have in place" to avoid further abuses.
"We are committed to ensuring that we not only get this right, but maintain the vital trust of the American people," Mueller said.
At yesterday's hearing, Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) condemned the FBI's "widespread illegal and improper use of national security letters," and urged Mueller to be more attentive to the problem.
"Everybody wants to stop terrorists," Leahy said. "But we also, though, as Americans, we believe in our privacy rights and we want those protected."
A year ago, lawmakers of both parties called for limits on the FBI's use of the security letters, which demand consumer information from banks, credit card companies and other institutions without a warrant as part of investigations into suspected terrorism and espionage. Congress has not followed through with legislation, however, and Mueller sought to assure lawmakers that internal changes will solve the problems. He said new FBI procedures will "minimize the chance of future lapses," including the creation of a compliance office tasked with monitoring the use of security letters.
But Michael German, a former FBI agent who is national security policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement that "it's becoming more and more obvious that outside oversight is essential since the Bureau's learning curve is sadly unimpressive."
"Instituting judicial oversight would guarantee that someone would be looking over the shoulder of agents using a tool as invasive as an NSL," German said. The ACLU and other civil liberties groups say the government's use of security letters should be significantly narrowed or brought under court supervision.
Under questioning from Leahy about the Bush administration's controversial use of harsh techniques for interrogating suspected terrorists, Mueller defended the FBI's practice of using "noncoercive" techniques on criminal and terrorism suspects, saying they are "effective and sufficient and appropriate."
Mueller said the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit has found that building trust with prisoners is "particularly effective." He pointed to the FBI's interrogation of Saddam Hussein, which yielded crucial details about the former Iraqi government's actions and motivations.
"Our techniques and the experts that we have . . . believe that our techniques are effective, and are sufficient and appropriate to our mission," Mueller said. "And those techniques are founded on a desire to develop a rapport and a relationship."
President Bush is expected to veto a bill this week that would bar the CIA from using harsh techniques, including waterboarding, a type of simulated drowning.
© 2008 Washington Post